The end of an era

// Norm Dicks stepping away from politics

  • Norm Dicks at a 2011 ceremony for rehabilitation of Murray Morgan Bridge. (Photo by John Larson)

One of the more illustrious political careers in the history of this state will come to a close at the end of this year. U.S. Representative Norm Dicks, a Democrat from Belfair, announced on March 2 he will not seek re-election, ending his time in Congress after 18 terms. He served the longest time in Congress of any Washingtonian, topping the 30 years served by Democrat Tom Foley of Spokane, who left the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995. Prior to his 36 years as an elected member, Dicks spent eight years on the staff of U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson.

Dicks released a statement in which he noted his wife, Suzie, and he "have made the decision to change gears and enjoy life at a different pace."

Dicks attended the University of Washington and played football for the Huskies in the early 1960s. He has stated that injuries he sustained on the gridiron as a young man have resulted in numbness in his neck in recent years, another factor in his decision to not seek re-election.

Dicks represented the Sixth Congressional District, which includes part of Tacoma and stretches west to encompass the Olympic Peninsula down to Ocean Shores.

He played a key role in providing federal funding to major projects in the renaissance of downtown, including renovation of Pantages Theater, saving Union Station and building the adjoining federal courthouse and the Interstate 705 spur connection the city center with Interstate 5.

Dicks was a key player in brokering the Puyallup Tribe's land claims settlement in the late 1980s. The $162 million package of land, cash and funding for social programs led the tribe to relinquish its claims to land in downtown, the Tideflats, Fife and Puyallup. The settlement led to the rise of international trade through the Port of Tacoma and distribution centers in the nearby suburbs.

"He was a very integral part of it," said Puyallup Tribal Council Chair Herman Dillon, Sr. He said Dicks and U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) were the key elected officials at the federal level who made the settlement happen. "Norm spent more time than anyone on the Hill on it."

Dillon said Dicks was always tuned in to the concerns of Native Americans. "He was a friend of ours and many other tribes," he remarked. As a leader in his tribe, Dillon has often been in contact with Dicks, both in Tacoma and on trips back to the nation's capitol. "When we need something we see Norm, and he gets it done."

Dillon has served many terms on the council and can understand why Dicks is ready for a change of pace. "After 18 terms, he deserves some time off," Dillon said. "I imagine I will be doing the same thing soon."

U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was elected in 1992. She describes Dicks as a mentor, friend and advisor.

"He is our state's quarterback here in Congress, and I cannot imagine our delegation without him," she remarked. "Norm will retire from Congress leaving behind an incredible legacy of public service. Washington state families will benefit from his hard work, passionate advocacy and tremendous contributions for decades to come. To me, more than anything, Norm is the guy who loves Washington state more than life, who would do anything to defend it, and who works everyone to the bone to make sure the families he represents are taken care of."

"The thing I always liked about Norm is he is always accessible when I am back in Washington, D.C.," Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. "He has always been warm and welcoming."

She rattled off a short list of downtown projects Dicks has championed, including restoring the waterfront, the 705 spur, Union Station and ongoing efforts to secure funding for streetscape improvements for Pacific Avenue. "We owe Norm Dicks a debt of gratitude. He will be missed. He has built a great legacy for our city."

Many Republicans have run against Dicks over the year and all have lost by substantial margins. One is Mike Lonergan, the GOP challenger in 1984. Dicks took about two-thirds of the votes that year. "I found out the tremendous power of incumbency," Lonergan recalled. "It is quite an advantage for any member of Congress, especially one with some seniority. They become hard to beat."

Lonergan got to know Dicks well while serving on Tacoma City Council from 2002-09. Lonergan went to Washington, D.C. on official city business once during that time and interacted with his staff often here in Tacoma. Dicks always wanted to know what Tacoma and the rest of Pierce County needed from the federal government. "He really tried to deliver something tangible every couple of years and he did that."

Lonergan said the only time Dicks got upset was when the city, county and port could not agree on what their top priorities were.

Lonergan remembers Dicks attending the opening of the Center for Urban Waters a few years ago and thought he looked tired from the many years in office and making the long trip between the two Washingtons numerous times. He noted the old football injuries likely were taking a toll.

"You cannot go on forever," Lonergan said. "I had wondered for years when he would retire." He noted the eight years with Magnuson and 36 years in Congress adds up to a long career in public service. Lonergan said Dicks enjoys being in his district, especially fishing for salmon, something he will have more time for soon. "I think he is doing a smart thing."

Who will replace Dicks remains to be seen. On the Democratic side, State Senator Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor is a potential candidate. State Senators Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch have been mentioned as well.

Recent GOP challengers have included technology consultant Jesse Young and attorney Doug Cloud. Lonergan said he spoke with Young during the Republican caucus at Freighthouse Square on March 3. Young told him he contacted the Republican National Committee after hearing Dicks' announcement, urging them to focus on this district. "He thinks it is a big opportunity, a district that could swing the GOP's way."

Neither Cloud nor Young have held elected office. The Republicans may seek a more experienced politician. Lonergan noted State Representative Jan Angel of Port Orchard has been contacted about running.

Lonergan thinks a Democrat would have a slight advantage in the election in November. But the recent redistricting process puts more rural, and potentially conservative, areas beyond the Narrows Bridges in the Sixth District. That could work in favor of the GOP. "It is winnable by either party."

What role, if any, Dicks chooses to play in the process could be a deciding factor, in Lonergan's view. "If he speaks publicly on behalf of a Democrat, that would make a big difference."


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